Optimising your ‘end of year’ review for maximum impact

Optimising your ‘end of year’ review for maximum impact

Late November is the time when many of us are reflecting on our progress for the year and updating our stakeholders.

This can be fraught, particularly in an increasingly cost-constrained environment. Many recent working session stories have had a cost theme, as have many of the stories I have been working on with my corporate clients.

In that light I wanted to share one critical idea to focus on when preparing your next progress report.

Prioritising impact over activity is ever more important in these increasingly cost-constrained times. Let me explain what I mean.

Saying ‘we have been busy' is rarely enough. Providing a list of things you and your team have completed over the past period is the easy way out and only marginally useful. Even when the list is well-grouped, it is rarely insightful. It can also be overwhelming and just says ‘we have been busy'.

I once worked with the head of projects at a global car company and she asked me why her CFO never responded to the weekly update email he requested.

When I reviewed it I could see why.

She had listed literally 100 project tasks that had been worked on, categorised by area, without offering any insight as to how these linked to the overall objectives.

Saying ‘we are on track' is better. Our Traffic Light pattern helps you tell a straightforward good news story. You can say ‘all is well' and then back that up using a classic time-ordered structure. It works from past to present and then future by beginning with what has been done, moving on to what is currently in train and then what is planned.

This at least offers stakeholders comfort to know that they have nothing to worry about. This can be sufficient, but is not always so, especially in times of heightened attention to costs.

Saying ‘we have delivered X value' is better still. You can tweak Traffic Light a few ways to achieve this.

  1. Order by project area. Instead of ordering the ideas by time, you could outline how much you have achieved in each project area. The difference here is that you would say, ‘we delivered xyz results' rather than ‘we completed abc activities'
  2. Order by impact. Another way to structure the supporting points is to explain where you have delivered the greatest impact first, then move to moderate then to the least.


Explaining how your team could deliver more impact is best. This requires you to take a step back and look for opportunities to optimise your ways of working within your area as well stepping outside that area to focus on your purpose.

If you reflect on the reason why your program of work exists and ask whether your priorities and activity are still the best way to achieve that goal, you may find some gems. Here are some questions you might ask:

  1. Are the boundaries or constraints that we believed to be in place at the start of this program still relevant?
  2. Has anything changed outside our area that would render some of our work either more or less useful, and so deserve to be reprioritised?
  3. Could we work in parallel rather than in sequence to deliver more quickly?
  4. Are we gold plating for the sake of technical perfection rather than value?
  5. Do we have capacity to support another critical area of the business? (Dangerous, I know … but potentially value adding all the same!)


I offer these as thought starters rather than a complete list of questions. If you have seen others in play that are not here, let me know and I can share them in next week's email.

I hope that helps. More next week.

Kind regards,
Davina

PS We have now uploaded two new podcasts into the portal that are not yet available anywhere else. Check them out … I think you’ll enjoy them. 

Is your paper really for ‘noting’?

Is your paper really for ‘noting’?

I had a terrific question from a client today that highlighted a common strategic challenge.

How do we use a storyline to create a ‘paper for noting’?

These are papers that aren't asking for a decision but truly updating our audience on a topic. For example, they might do one of these things:

  • confirm that something has been done
  • explain that something is ‘on track'


Adrian was concerned that he didn’t have a ‘so what’, but rather wanted his Board to be aware of a problem so they were ready to hear about his business case in a couple of months’ time.

So, what to do?

I suggested that very rarely are papers truly for noting, but rather for endorsement.

We talked through three different options and landed on asking the Board to endorse the plan to prepare a business case.

Here’s why we made that choice:

Asking them to ‘note’ that we have a problem without any indication of what the team was preparing to do about it seemed lacking.

The team wasn’t ready to deliver a solution, but this option would leave the Board empty handed.

Asking permission to prioritise preparing the business case to find a solution to the problem was unnecessary.

Adrian had full authority, particularly when supported by the Senior Leadership Team, to prepare the business case without asking for permission.

So, we landed on a third path: asking the Board to endorse their plan to prepare a business case.

This strategy prepared the Board about the existence of the problem that required a solution, demonstrated early that the team was taking action and provided clarity around the next steps.

I hope that’s useful and look forward to sending more ideas through next week.

Kind regards,
Davina


PS – If this topic interests you you may also enjoy the Board Papers MasterClass facilitated by my colleague and expert board advisor, Jane Stutchberry. 

What to do when stakeholders disagree with you?

What to do when stakeholders disagree with you?

I was recently asked a wonderful question:
 

How do we communicate with a large group that includes stakeholders who disagree with us?

 

The client and I had a terrific discussion and I mapped the outcome as a decision tree to share with you all.

The tree offers a series of decision points that we must navigate if we are to deliver a story that gets the result we need.

In this particular case, the issue centred around a common problem, which was how to handle ‘the story' when key stakeholders don't agree with it. Do we ….

  • Tell the same story regardless?
  • Edit the story to accommodate that person (or those people) only?
  • Ask someone else to present on our behalf?
  • Create a separate story that deals with the ‘objector's specific concerns?
  • Scrap the story and start again?

There are lots of alternatives, each of which might suit a different situation but none of which suit all.

Hence, the decision tree.

You can also download the decision tree here >> 

I hope you find it useful.

Kind regards,
Davina

PS – For those of you who have not yet joined one of our working sessions, please go to the session registrations tab on the main menu to do so. We'd love to do your work for with you!

Why formatting really matters

Why formatting really matters

You may have noticed that I focus heavily on the substance of our communication potentially at the cost of minutiae.

While I hold to that, I do think formatting matters for emails and other documents as it helps you keep track of your story while simultaneously helping your audience navigate through it.

So, how do we get that balance right?

Here are some simple principles and templates to help both you and your audience to see the hierarchy of your messaging.

Firstly, some principles to help you signal which part of the structure each element of your communication belongs to. In more detail:

  1. Make the ‘so what’ pop off the page using white space and bold
  2. Use bullets and / or numbers to encourage you to break out your points and avoid ‘block shock’
  3. Break up sections that are longer than 3 lines so your audience can ‘see your point’ without working too hard

Secondly, some templates to help embed instructions inside your documents as reminders and also ways to minimise the need to think about process.

  1. Consider setting up some email signatures with instructions and formatting embedded within. Download two examples here that you can copy paste into your own signatures.
  2. Explore using ‘comments' inside your important templates to remind you how to use structure. Download a sample Board Paper template here which you can easily adapt to other forums. Select ‘view markup' to see the comments.

I hope these help and look forward to bringing more ideas to you next week.

Kind regards,
Davina

PS – Don't forget to register for this week's working sessions too. Go to the Session Registrations tab in the main menu to do so.

How to handle ‘background’ in board papers

How to handle ‘background’ in board papers

How often do you see decision making papers that begin with a section for background? And … how often is that background really, really long?

This is a problem on a number of levels, not only because board members and other leaders routinely list ‘too much background' as one of their pet hates.

Some audiences, however, have greatly mixed needs for background which creates some difficulty.

So, what to do?

I am offering five strategies you could employ depending upon your confidence regarding the audience's situation.

Where you are confident that the audience needs a ‘quick refresh' rather than an opportunity to ask questions and discuss the issues, adopt these two strategies:

Strategy #1 – Refer to and link out to any past papers to avoid repetition but still provide new members with access to the relevant history. You might say something like this: In last month's meeting we discussed four potential options for solving problem X (See last month's paper here). This is easily done where you are using an electronic paper system, such as BoardRoom.

Strategy #2 – Include relevant past papers in an appendix. This is useful when you don't have the ability to hyperlink to the past paper.

Where you are not confident that the audience will remember the content (perhaps because the discussion was truncated or you have a highly technical issue that is on the margins of their experience), include the information in the story in one of three ways.

Strategy #1 – Weave the messages into the new story. If reminding them about options discussed earlier, you might go with a deductive structure to allow more room for reasoning. Here are two suggestions.

  • Use a To Be or Not To Be structure to explain the options before making your recommendation, rather than just saying ‘Option B is Best before offering a list of reasons why you are recommending it.
  • Remind them of the problem being solved by merging Houston and To B or Not To B. You can use a Houston structure for your ‘statement', and following with ‘However, Option B is Best' for your comment and then leading into your therefore, implement Option B.


Strategy #2 – Use a Watch Out pattern to include a generous amount of detail on what's been done so far. This is always a useful pattern for when you need to change direction, but where your audience isn't keeping up with you, you may find it useful to be ‘fulsome' in your statement. The comment that allows for ‘risks ahead' can be tweaked in all sorts of ways to allow for necessary changes that you have just identified.

Strategy #3 – Add a section in your grouping to cover off on the ‘background'. This could be done (at least!) two ways:

  • In an Action Jackson story where you are describing how to implement something, start the first section with a message like this: “Become familiar with the options available”. This provides an opportunity for you to then describe the options as the first step in a process.
  • In a Pitch Pattern, weave the information throughout the story as you touch on key topics. If you are referring options, then describe the options in a deductive flow underneath the “We have a great solution” section.


I hope that helps.

Kind regards,
Davina


Related posts …

The difference between being ‘clear’ and being compelling’

The difference between being ‘clear’ and being compelling’

This week's working groups provided an excellent opportunity to think about the difference between being ‘clear' and being ‘compelling'.

I have drawn out three key takeaways that highlight that although being clear is a useful place to start, it is often not enough.

Making the leap from being clear to being compelling required us to lean into my favourite question: why?

Did the ‘trigger' really describe why we were communicating about the information in the context? For example:

Version 1 – The Board has used this as an opportunity to review the Constitution and governance practices to ensure compliance and to identify opportunities for improvement.

Version 2 – We are proposing some amendments for your consideration ahead of the coming AGM

Did the ‘so what' synthesise the items together and explain 
why this group of actions was necessary?

Version 1 – Amending the Constitution will ensure it is able to reflect community expectations, provide flexibility, allow for technological advances and meet best practice governance standards.
 
Version 2 –The Board seeks Members' endorsement at the AGM to amend the Constitution to meet best practice governance standards and maintain full funding.
Did each top line point explain explain why each group of actions was important?

Version 1 – With one exception, was a list of topics rather than messages
    • Reflect community expectations [the exception]
    • Clarification and flexibility
    • Technological advances
    • Governance best practice
Version 2 –A list of outcomes that each group of amendments would deliver
    • Reflect community expectations by being more inclusive
    • Clarify lines of responsibility to tighten governance and qualify for future funding
    • Allow for technological advances
    • Update timeframes around the voting process

Here is the video from the working session.

How to make a deductive structure ‘really sing’

How to make a deductive structure ‘really sing’

 Have you ever wondered what holds a deductive flow together?

Part of the success requires the statement and comment to be tightly linked together, along with the comment and the therefore point.

However, weak support for any of the points, but particularly the comment can bring the whole story undone.

This played out with what was a ‘good cyber strategy’ that I worked on with a senior leadership team this week.

Let’s unpack what we did to convert it into a great cyber strategy.

  1. The introduction was tight and led to a clear and compelling ‘so what’
  2. The high-level storyline be a promising ‘Houston’ pattern. It set up the problem as the first point, explained how to fix that problem in the second and led to a clear and related set of actions
  3. The storyline was let down by a disconnect between the comment and its supporting points. This storyline fell into a common trap of outlining the actions in the strategy here rather than explaining why these are the right actions

I have simplified and sanitised the before and after versions here to illustrate. You can also download the example below in pptx format.

I hope that helps and look forward to bringing you more next week.

Regards,
Davina

How to avoid being diverted by the back story so you can focus on the today story

How to avoid being diverted by the back story so you can focus on the today story

Has this happened to you?

You have an important presentation to make to a senior leadership group and a big chunk of the time is spent talking about ‘background’.

The leaders ask every question under the sun about the history of the program, what you have done in the past and you find yourself repeating your last five presentations. You use precious face time with them looking backwards rather than looking forwards.

This was a hot topic in today’s coaching session with the Senior People Leader at an Australian retailer.

Let’s look at what was going on before looking at a sanitised version of the before and after.

Here's what was going on : ‘Mary’ was going into way too much detail in the introduction

Mary would brace herself for these discussions as they felt a bit like an interrogation and to head off the questions, she included lots of background up front.

She referred to the history of the People Strategy and went into quite some detail about it.

However, in doing this she was also leaving the door open for questions as the first part of her paper wasn’t a complete summary, or perhaps described past events using new words which piqued the Board’s curiosity.

Her strategy was backfiring.

To avoid this, we suggest tightening your introduction to lead your audience directly where you want them to go (to the So What).

Here are four tips for doing that.

  1. Assume you must synthesise your context as tightly as you would synthesise your ‘so what’. Even for a lengthy paper, keep the context short, ideally to no more than 2-3 sentences in total.
  2. Stick to information that is or should be known to the audience.
  3. Ensure the trigger articulates clearly and simply why you are communicating with this audience about the topic described in the context at this point in time.
  4. Focus on material that introduces the topic as it stands right now. This will prime your audience on the topic that you want to discuss and open the door for the trigger rather than more questions.

Here’s a sanitised before and after to illustrate.

The ‘Before’ included far too much detail which gave the audience a chance to derail the conversation and not get to the so what

[CONTEXT] Talented people needed to deliver our ambition, has and been remains a business goal. We have focused on talent over the last 3 years – approach largely individualistic and limited by poor capability frames

Our new operating model provides an opportunity for us to differentiate ourselves in the talent market – move talent to max value work, no other retailer using this new operating approach, and we can become known for development

We have started implementing a 3-year strategy to drive enterprise talent & capability and that has changed the talent profile through recruitment. Development will be the focus in the following years

We will track impact and manage talent-based risk

[TRIGGER] We have a Talent strategy that we believe will deliver on our goal to win through talent.

[QUESTION] What is your strategy?

The ‘After’ is much tighter all round and led to a tighter discussion around Mary's agenda

[CONTEXT] Moving to the new operating model provides us with an opportunity to differentiate ourselves in the talent market. This enables us to build on the foundations established over the past three years to develop a winning talent strategy.

[TRIGGER] We have a new leading edge Talent strategy that will enable us to capture the full opportunity that our new business model offers us.

[QUESTION] What is your strategy?

I hope that helps and look forward to checking in with you again next week.

Kind regards,
Davina

PS – We have working sessions this week. Don't forget to register!